By Genevieve Carlton | Checked By Jaclyn AnglisPublished September 28, 2021
At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, over 400 women disguised themselves in order to join in the fray. But 17-year-old Cathay Williams, a Black slave, was not one of them.
After Union soldiers freed her, Williams became a cook and washerwoman for their army. But she also became a spy and, for four years, went behind enemy lines deep in the Confederacy.
Her years with the Union Army inspired her to enlist in 1866, and this time, she did disguise herself. Using the name William Cathay, Williams became the only Black woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier — and the first in U.S. history to enlist.
Who Was Cathay Williams?
Born in Independence, Missouri in 1844, Cathay Williams was not free – in spite of the fact that her father was a free man. Because her mother was enslaved, young Williams didn’t see a day of freedom in her childhood.
Instead, she became a house slave in a stretch of Missouri known as “Little Dixie.” By 1861, her mother had died and the Civil War broke out. Soon, Union soldiers occupied Jefferson City, where Cathay Williams lived.
The soldiers freed the slaves – but not entirely.
Union Army policy treated captured slaves as contraband in 1861. As a result, the Army forced enslaved people like Cathay Williams to take on jobs like cooking, washing laundry, and keeping the camp.
Colonel William P. Benton, the man in charge of the 13th Army Corps Union Soldiers, told Williams and the other freed slaves that they would travel deep into Confederate territory.
“I did not want to go,” Cathay Williams said frankly in an 1876 interview. But, she explained, “I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook.” Traveling elsewhere seemed like the next best opportunity.